Global Policy Forum

Angola's Poor Have Yet to Taste Fruits of Country's Oil Riches


By Mary Fitzgerald

Irish Times
September 1, 2008

WHEN ANGOLA'S first shopping mall opened last year, people like Joana Numelia hailed it as a sign of how far the former Portuguese colony had come since the decades it spent convulsed by one of Africa's longest-running wars. Today, business is booming at Gourmet de Belas, a Portuguese-owned delicatessen at the mall. The white truffles imported from Italy are much in demand, as are the chocolates from Fauchon in Paris. But the fridge full of Dom Perignon and Krug is the biggest draw. "Our Angolan customers like to buy a lot of champagne," shrugs one shop assistant. Outside, huge banners proclaiming Liberdade and Opportunidade hang next to chi chi stores selling lingerie and slimming aids imported from Brazil. Pushing a trolley heaving with shopping bags, Joana says life is good. "Our country has started a new journey. No one wants a return to the way things were," says the lawyer and mother of two.

Much has changed in Angola since 2002, the year that saw an end to almost three decades of vicious civil war. With the country poised to hold its first parliamentary elections in 16 years on Friday, affluent Angolans like Joana insist there are many reasons to feel optimistic about the future. On the back of record oil exports, Angola is now one of the world's most rapidly expanding economies, registering more than 21 per cent growth last year. Pumping close to two million barrels a day, the country rivals Nigeria as sub-Saharan Africa's biggest oil producer. Cranes pierce the skyline of its mildewed capital Luanda, as contractors rush to build glass-fronted office buildings that will tower high above the city's crumbling colonial architecture.

In the new suburb of Luanda Sul, home to the aforementioned shopping mall, freshly laid roads lead to pastel-coloured condominiums that sell for at least $1 million. Over cocktails at beachside bars and restaurants, the Angolan elite boast of hosting the African Cup in 2010 and building the continent's tallest building in Luanda at an estimated cost of $800 million. Dotted around the capital are signs that read Todos juntos é possí­vel - Together, it is possible. On a good day, the slogan makes Armando, a part-time driver, laugh bitterly. On a bad day, it just makes him angry. Armando knows all too personally the reality of the well-worn observation that no other country is so simultaneously rich and poor as Angola.

The nation that earned an estimated $41 billion in oil exports last year is also one where almost 70 per cent live on less than $2 a day, and one in four children die before their fifth birthday. For all its wealth, Angola languishes on the bottom rungs of most development indices, including life-expectancy and education. Home for Armando and his family is a shack made of breeze-blocks and corrugated iron in one of the sprawling shanty towns, known as musseques, that stretch for miles beyond downtown Luanda. The city struggles to contain its estimated five million residents - around a half of the country's entire population - most of whom live in slum conditions with no running water or electricity. "We know Angola is rich, but most of us live as if this was the poorest country in the world," says Armando. "It feels like we are living under Herod or Pharaoh."

The boom also remains largely elusive for those living in the country's interior, says Nicole Walsh, Trocaire's representative in Angola. "The influence of the oil bonanza since the end of the war is very clear to see in the cities and along the coast, but in the rural areas there's much less visible proof that this is a wealthy country," she says. "There is peace, but life hasn't changed very much in terms of material benefits." In May Bob Geldof drew the ire of Angolan officials when he declared that the former Portuguese colony was run by "criminals". Angola, Geldof told a development conference in Lisbon, is a country where "few have millions and millions have next to nothing". Deputy prime minister Aguinaldo Jaime urges patience. "It is true that we have to improve ways to better distribute the wealth that has been generated," he tells The Irish Times. "This is what the Angolan government has in mind, but obviously it takes time." He is equally sanguine when asked about efforts to root out the endemic corruption that infects Angolan society from government level to the small bribes known as gasosa that grease the machinery of everyday life. "Efforts are being made to render corruption more complicated," Jaime argues. "I don't believe there is a country anywhere in the world that can say it has tackled corruption once and for all."

Friday's ballot will be a crucial test for Angola in more ways than one. In 1992, the country's first - and only - multi-party elections tipped it back into civil war. The two adversaries in that conflict remain the political heavyweights in this week's poll: the Marxist-turned-capitalist MPLA, which has ruled Angola since its independence in 1975, and Unita, the former rebel faction. Despite Unita hingeing much of its campaign on inequality and corruption, the MPLA is widely expected to glide back to power. That prospect angers Carlos Mateus, an unemployed former soldier who now lives in Boa Vista, an overcrowded slum shoehorned next to Luanda's main port. Pulling up a sleeve to reveal the name of Angola's armed forces inked across his bicep, Mateus says he will vote for Unita. "I fought for the MPLA during the war. I never imagined then that I would vote for Unita, but the government has done nothing for me. They don't care about people like us." International observers have arrived in Angola to monitor this week's historic elections. Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch warned that intimidation of opposition groups and restrictions on media may damage the credibility of the poll. But Aguinaldo Jaime not only insists that the elections will be free and fair, he also argues they will set an example for Africa in the wake of recent post-election violence in Zimbabwe and Kenya. "People were left exhausted by the war; they have learned how to live together and reconcile the differences," he says. "Angolans understand that what brings us together is more important than what keeps us apart."

Angola since independence: the history

1975: Angola gains independence from Portugal, triggering a power struggle between the MPLA, backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union, and the FNLA plus Unita, supported by South Africa and the US.

1979: MPLA leader Agostinho Neto dies. Jose Eduardo Dos Santos takes over as president, a position he still holds today.

1989: Dos Santos and Unita leader Jonas Savimbi agree to a ceasefire, which soon collapses.

1991: Dos Santos and Savimbi sign peace accord in Lisbon, which leads to a new multi-party constitution.

1992: Angola's first presidential and parliamentary elections are held. UN observers certify polls as generally free and fair.

Dos Santos garners more votes than Savimbi. The Unita leader rejects the result and decides to resume guerrilla war.

1994: Government and Unita sign Lusaka protocol peace deal.

1995: UN peacekeepers arrive.

1996: Dos Santos and Savimbi agree to form unity government.

1997: Unity government inaugurated, but Savimbi turns down post. Tensions increase.

1998: Fighting resumes.

1999: UN ends its mission.

2002 February: Savimbi is killed by government forces.

2002 April: The government and Unita again agree to a ceasefire.

2002 August: Unita dissolves armed wing. Defence minister declares war has ended.

2004 September: Production of oil tops one million barrels per day.

2007 February: Dos Santos announces parliamentary polls for 2008 and presidential ballot in 2009.

2008 September 5th: First parliamentary elections since 1992.




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